This year, the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee’s annual conference in Nottingham in October had two distinct faces. One – through gritted teeth – was proudly showing how well local authorities are managing to keep their services going despite the severe ‘austerity’ spending cuts in the past eight years. The other face was quizzical, unable yet to fathom what policy changes the next 12 months will bring.
The timing of the conference was key, coming less than three weeks before the chancellor’s Budget statement as MRW was going to press and, expected soon, Defra’s resources and waste strategy.
It also dictated the approach and tone of the first two guest speakers: Mary Creagh, chair of Westminster watchdog the Environmental Audit Committee, and Chris Preston, Defra’s deputy director in the waste section. The former talked about what she wanted from ministers while the latter could not talk about what we all wanted to hear – policy details.
It is tough for civil servants under these circumstances. Some delegates told me, somewhat unfairly, they learned nothing new from Preston. I, for one, valued his affirmation of how the strategy marked “a huge opportunity to drive up resource efficiency” because “the landscape has changed in so many ways”.
The officer’s view
As has become the way, the Larac conference covered a lot of ground during the two days. There wasn’t a theme that was either planned or that emerged in Nottingham but, for me, the word “change” was never far from a presenter’s lips. There seemed to be agreement that change was coming and a fair amount of disagreement of what that change should look like.
It is understandable that having waited so long for Defra’s resources and waste strategy, and it now being so close, there would be plenty of debate about its contents and implications, especially for council officers who formed the vast majority of the conference’s audience.
Something that was clearly evident was just how local authorities are managing their waste services in light of reduced budgets. Despite what some have said at other recent conferences, local authority funding is due to be reduced further during the next three years.
The question of council funding, which Larac raised in its policy paper earlier this year, was not fully answered, yet the way councils are managing was clear. Presentations from South Staffs and Daventry show that local authorities are having to adapt and innovate to cope with smaller and smaller budgets when there is an expectation of more services.
Next year the Larac conference is likely to have a programme focused on the Defra strategy – if it is the comprehensive document many hope for and expect. It will be interesting to see how far the topics, viewpoints and feelings are different from this year.
Lee Marshall is Chief executive at Larac
If Defra’s policies help to make the best of this huge opportunity, then we all gain. I also liked his emphasis on innovation and the myth-busting comment that it is a ‘misnomer’ to suggest you cannot protect the environment and boost the economy at the same time.
No such restrictions faced Creagh, who is an adroit performer with a sense of humour that goes down well at such gatherings, especially when she jokes about environment secretary Michael Gove. She took aim at what is already in the public domain: the five sustainability pillars from the 25-year environment plan that will underpin Defra’s strategy.
Having said that waste and recycling were “on the agenda as never before”, she urged more ambition. Referring to the goal of zero avoidable waste by 2050, Creagh said: “I’ll be 83 and I’m not going to wait that long. We need to become resource-sufficient by then and I know you share my views on that.”
Repeating concerns expressed in her speech to RWM in September, she also criticised the pillar that pledged the elimination of avoidable plastic waste by 2042 as “unambitious” – and called for a worthwhile definition of ‘avoidable’.
On the other hand, Defra’s goal of stopping food waste going to landfill by 2030 excited her, and she welcomed a £15m pilot announced by Gove at the Conservative Party conference to redistribute more food than is currently being disposed of by retailers and manufacturers. But Creagh wondered why a pilot was even necessary when Company Shop, FareShare and others were already well established, and showing exactly how surplus food can go to good causes.
While extended producer responsibility is expected to be a fundamental part of Defra’s strategy, Creagh was scathing about earlier versions of producer responsibility, including the use of packaging recovery notes (PRNs).
The two-day conference is mainly an opportunity for council officers to meet, share experiences and reflect on the many examples of best practice in a series of workshops. The topics included contamination, service change and collection frequencies, food waste, contracts, regulation, recycling in flats and managing HWRCs.
The awards evening also highlighted the achievements of local authority officers.
- Communications Campaign: Doncaster Council and Suez UK
- Partnership: ‘Educating Bolton’
- Team: Surrey Waste Partnership
- Waste minimisation or prevention: Bristol Waste Company
- New idea: Big Waste Data, Cornwall Council
- Outstanding contribution: Carole Destre, Royal Borough of Greenwich recycling adviser
“Twenty years after the PRN scheme was introduced, what has it achieved? Has it protected our streets, seas and fields from litter? It has not. Has it made packaging simpler and easier to recycle – it has not.”
PRNs might be an easy target at the moment inasmuch as they were not introduced to cure all the ills she listed – although it is true that environment secretaries before Gove showed precious little interest in reform in this area.
MRW understands that a relatively smooth understanding between the Treasury and Defra on the sort of fiscal measures needed to drive resource efficiency has become rockier in recent weeks. One factor has been the Treasury’s interest in an incineration tax, prompted by a considerable number of the record 160,000 responses to its consultation on possible taxation to cut plastic waste.
But Creagh, in common with others, fears unintended consequences and revealed to delegates, as reported by MRW, that she had written to the chancellor urging him not to introduce such a tax in the autumn statement.
She said: “The experiences of other European countries [with incineration tax] do nothing to boost recycling rates or improve [use of] plastic packaging. It would drive up costs to councils and to council tax-payers. It could cause more waste to landfill.”
But she welcomed rumours of a tax on chewing gum, which she said blighted many public places while the cost of cleaning fell on local authority budgets. She praised Larac members for increasing the household recycling rate from single figures at the turn of the century to nearer 47% but blamed an absence of policy direction in recent years for the rates stalling.
The outsider’s view
Since taking part in a panel debate on why recycling rates are stalling and, in some cases, falling at Larac’s conference, I’ve been pondering the final question posed by the audience, along the lines of “what one game-changing intervention will make the biggest difference?” I have come to think this very fair and challenging question is somewhat problematic.
Legislating to make sure all packaging is recyclable was one of the answers given by the panel yet, as industry experts know, end-markets are key to material actually getting recycled. The truth is there is no single silver bullet when it comes to Government policy interventions. The suite of measures promised in the resources and waste strategy should stimulate change, but it will be the breadth of measures that will be key to success.
Defra has spoken at length this year about working across Whitehall departments to ensure the strategy is comprehensive and coherent. But the record to date is not good. Currently, the business department’s Renewable Heat Incentive subsidy scheme is directly competing against Defra’s recycling targets for wood packaging material, which are competing against the market-led pallet reuse companies.
These Government interventions have certainly not been looked at in the round and are highly likely to be moving material down the waste hierarchy. I hope this one specific example is not indicative of cross-departmental collaboration in general.
One thing highlighted by the Larac conference is that, without major policy changes led by central Government, including adequate funding, recycling rates will continue to stall. It seems reasonable to suggest that local authorities have achieved all they can from ever-diminishing budgets.
I remain confident that they will be net beneficiaries of changes to extended producer responsibility for packaging, but how they fund other problematic waste streams such as food remains to be seen.
Robbie Staniforth is policy manager at Ecosurety and chair at Packaging Scheme Forum